There is such a thing as a stupid question


Here’s click-baity title it’s hard to resist: Science Still Can’t Explain This Biological Mystery, But Scientists Like to Pretend Otherwise. Oooh. What is that “biological mystery”? I want to know!

It’s a bad sign, though, when the author has to strain to stave off criticism before he gets around to spilling the beans.

Those of us who embrace science are growing increasingly impatient with religious and spiritual traditions. To us, absolute faith in claims scribed by backwards people thousands of years ago is delusional. We think it’s time for the faithful to get over themselves. The culture wars will end when it finally does. We’re waiting, though not patiently, because much is at stake.

Much is indeed at stake, but we’re actually waiting for the scientific to get over themselves. I say this as an atheist fully committed to science as the best method yet for discovering the nature of reality.

“I’m an atheist, so you know you can trust me” (oops, no, I can’t), “now you scientists better address my demands!” OK, I know who needs to get over themselves, and it isn’t the scientists here.

But finally, what is the mystery?

Between science and faith, I think faith is te more honest about what the scientific community seems perversely averse to explaining: Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry. Scientists explain organisms away or simply assume them without explaining them. At least the faithful recognize that life’s purposefulness needs explaining, even though their explanation is no explanation at all.

Organisms? One broad, very general word, and we have to explain it to him? Try this. Go up to a plumber, and say “Pipes. Pipes are a mystery. You can’t explain them to me.” Or a refrigerator repairman: “I am confused by cold. Explain it. I think religion is more honest than physics in describing temperature.” What can you say? And he does go on and on trying to emphasize his ignorance — he’s not much different from Bill O’Reilly saying, “Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can’t explain that.” He even has his very own quaint definition of what an organism is.

Unlike inanimate things, organisms engage in functional, fitted effort. Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try to benefit themselves given their environment. Inanimate things don’t.

I’m just going to have to short-circuit this whole argument. The author, Jeremy Sherman, has simply reified the word “organism” to mean something discrete and unitary — it’s a thing that functions. That’s not very useful, especially since he’s setting it up as thing that cannot have a predecessor.

To a biologist, an organism is an integrated complex of replicating chemical reactions. It’s chemistry. The search for some vital distinction between chemistry and biology is over, there isn’t one, and they simply grade into one another. Sherman is erecting an imaginary wall and telling us we can’t get past it, but all the scientists are looking at him and wondering why they should take this challenge at all seriously — show us that there is a wall, don’t ask us to prove your fantasy is non-existent.

So look at viruses. Just chemistry, right? A bit of nucleic acid, a protein and carbohydrate coat. But they replicate, are functional, and are “fit” (I’m not sure that the “fitted” Sherman is talking about is at all similar to the “fitness” a biologist would discuss) in that some viruses are better at replicating than others. We can replicate RNA with just a nucleic acid strand, an enzyme, and a few cofactors.

Sherman nags that scientists have to get over themselves and come up with an explanation that satisfies him. The thing is, though, that lots of scientists are working on origin of life research, and are asking more sensible questions than “Organisms? WTF?”.

Seriously. Mr Sherman needs to get over himself and try reading any of the wealth of books on the subject. It’s not as if there is a shortage of scientists writing in an informed way about the origin of life comprehensibly for the public.

Comments

  1. says

    I think “fitted” might be a mathematical concept – I vaguely recall the term being used when I studied [badly] logical calculus, almost 30 years ago.

  2. brucej says

    I suspect he’s as much of a atheist as I am a unicorn.

    This is just more “Hur-Dur fooled dem atheeeists with my impeccable logic!” and a bare step above “If we came from monkeys why are there still monkeys!”

  3. DonDueed says

    Yeah! I got another one of you scientists: magnets! How the fuck do they work?

  4. DonDueed says

    And how did the “for” I typed turn into “of”??? Explain that!!!

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try …

    Trying to think of the name for this kind of error. Compartmentalization? not exactly.
    Personification? not quite
    oh well
    Automatically assigning a form of “personality” to a blob of chemicals otherwise called “organism”. An extraordinary lump of chemicals happened to operate to maintain its configuration, a form of “positive feedback loop” results where little outputs grow into larger outputs.
    I can;t express this properly, I fail at writing (being an engineer donchano). In short, assigning a rudimentary “consciousness” to something called “organism” seems to be a big presupposition and gets one stuck in a conundru of differentiating “animate” from “inanimate” objects.
    I can’t get passed “we are all chemistry”. dot. organisms are just an interesting aspect of chemistry, to asssign MORE is a form of religiosity, thinking “life” implies a form of “spirit” aside from only chemistry.
    i’m done
    ?

  6. anchor says

    An ‘inanimate’ rock is fit to exist too. It functions exactly like a rock.

  7. Ichthyic says

    “Jeremy Sherman is a decision theorist”

    well, there you go then.

    except… he’s not. he made that up.

    he’s a schlock writer that regularly posts articles at place like AlterNet and Psychology Today.

  8. nomdeplume says

    Sherman sounds like Ham or Hovend. The Hazen book “Genesis” (which PZ recommended elsewhere) is very good on the detail of abiogenesis and the search to describe it.

  9. anchor says

    oops, had the rest cut off:

    …the chemistry in it [a rock] is as ‘functional’ as that in an organism.

  10. consciousness razor says

    Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry.

    They’re relatively big, composite things, made of many parts known as “chemicals.” They emerge from chemistry by consisting of said chemicals. Asked and answered.

    I wouldn’t say those are stupid questions, but he does seem to demand that they have stupid answers. It’s not clear how his work in decision theory could be relevant (especially when describing things like bacteria, rather than humans), but given the videos he linked to on his youtube channel, his argument apparently has something or other to do with some combination of teleology and free will (or whatever “interpretive will” means). Or at least he has lots more words to say about that stuff for some odd reason, which may not get us anywhere or alleviate any mysteriousness. If it just amounts to some exotic new form of vitalism or panpsychism or who knows what, then nobody needed that. But it’s hard to tell, without diving into it and trying to sort out what he’s actually claiming (as opposed to the laundry list of things that leave him unsatisfied).

    I know very little about decision theory, but I would think agents are built in at the ground level. In other words, they’re just assumed, which is very far from saying they’ve been explained…. But all of this could just be a long-winded version of “look here, biologists, pay attention to meeeeeeee!” without having anything that would do what he’s claiming it does.

  11. consciousness razor says

    Ichthyic:

    “Jeremy Sherman is a decision theorist”

    well, there you go then.

    except… he’s not. he made that up.

    Oh…. Heh. Then it’s even less clear what the fuck he’s going on about.

  12. cvoinescu says

    @slithey tove #6: There is such a word: teleology. It’s usually bad news for the validity of an argument.

  13. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin observes the quoted clickbait’s author is almost perfectly “fitted” to be the destination of flung poo. Which would also explain what they[the author] are and how they[the author] emerge from chemistry, or in this case, emerge from a pile of previous poo-flinging (at what, in that previous instance, is not currently known).

  14. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    “Decision Theory”— you keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

    The guy seems to specialize in the “everything you know is wrong” school of journalism. Or as Pauli would have said, “He’s so bad, he’s not even wrong!”

  15. unclefrogy says

    he does not really want an answer to his questions at all. he just wants to ask them as if they were original to him. All such questions are the starting place of scientific inquiry like what is an organism? is it a separate thing? ,how is related to all other things?
    what are mere chemicals? His problem is the answers do not make him important or lasting in any way in fact it is just the opposite
    uncle frogy

  16. robro says

    Raucous @ #18 — Tut, tut. (And yes, I had the same thought.)

    Another age old problem: some people just can’t stand being an organic mass without an ultimate purpose. What’s the point if we’re just going to die, turn into sludge, and that’s that? Surely my life, every life is more important than that! Humanity has been actively wrestling with this question for a while, and the answer is pretty clear, but our sense of self makes it really difficult to absorb that message.

  17. raven says

    I was dumber after reading about Sherman.
    There is so much wrong here that it is fractal.

    1. He makes up his own terminology for the simple common vocabulary used by every day people and scientists.
    This seems to be solely to make it harder for people to even understand what he is trying and not saying.
    What he is calling organisms we simply call…life.
    Life has a scientific definition or rather several.
    From NASA, an independent, evolving lineage.

    2. Sherman …about what the scientific community seems perversely averse to explaining: Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry. This is pure, meaningless drivel and is just wrong. You can major in biology at hundreds of universities and we know far more about life than anyone can learn in one lifetime these days.

    Scientists aren’t averse to explaining how life came from nonlife.
    We simply don’t know right now in any real detail. It happened almost 4 billion years ago.
    This is simply a statement that science doesn’t know everything. True and so what? We never will know everything.

    3. Sherman Scientists explain organisms away or simply assume them without explaining them. This is more gibberish and also completely wrong.
    Scientists can explain organisms at any level from genomic sequence to evolutionary affinities and in between, cells and organs.
    What in the hell does he mean by explaining organisms?
    He seems to mean, having some sort of definition for life. Any biologist could produce one in a few minutes but we usually don’t bother because it is completely trivial.

  18. kebil says

    Thanks for commenting on this article. I read it yesterday, and the first thing I though of is irreducible complexity. His argument is a different form of this (I think, is their a logician in the house?). Instead of positing the “necessity of a creator” to create “design”, he is positing that an organisms behavior is purposeful, and therefore their must be a meta-physical “intent”. And since only conscious beings can have intent, and because their is no materialistic explanation of consciousness (this is his argument, not mine please remember), therefore it must be spiritual. And blah blah blah, so actually their is a god, but I just want to call myself an atheist so you will believe me.
    I imagine a “decision theorist” may be motivated to advocate for the strongest type of free will, and it seems to me such a belief would compel him to imagine more than what our minds actually are (i.e. brains).

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    The burden is on scientists to explain how functional fitted effort emerges from chemistry, a burden it has yet to address … I work with scientists who address it. Our approach recognizes that organisms have to make an ongoing effort to stay in existence rather than petering out, something ignored when one treats life as starting with special molecules or order. … Our research team has an explanation for how this would emerge from chemistry and if we’re right, we have a physical science explanation for the emergence of functional fitted effort.

    Just what does Sherman’s “research team” study, where, and what role does JS play in its paradigm-shattering work?

    Sherman has at present two articles on the front page of alternet.org, this and a fairly adequate demagoguery how-to about Trump™ techniques. The latter’s “about the author” blurb tell us

    Jeremy Sherman Ph.D. researches how the living interpret, from their cradle at the origin of life to our current grave situation.

    On behalf of those not quite in the grave yet, I would like to say, “Huh?”

  20. leerudolph says

    Ichthyic@8:

    “Jeremy Sherman is a decision theorist”
    well, there you go then.
    except… he’s not. he made that up.

    No, he didn’t. He’s doesn’t do what I (a mathematician on good terms with a mathematical statistician who’s worked in decision theory since approximately 1945 [he’s 95 now and still at it] and wrote the first elementary textbook on the subject) would call “decision theory”—the application of mathematical (not exclusively statistical!) techniques to “decision making” to inform one’s actions “under uncertainty about the state of nature” (quoted from Mathematical Reviews, MR0877321)—but that’s not necessarily the only way to theorize about decisions!

    Sherman’s 2001 Ph.D. thesis, Integrating evolutionary theory into decision theory, is from The Union Institute, an apparently fairly flaky, but accredited and non-profit, alternative sort of college/university (obscurely descended from Goddard College, Antioch College, and other similar places) specializing in (mostly) social-justicey kinds of topic. In particular, their five (present-day) doctoral programs are in “Educational Studies”, “Ethical & Creative Leadership”, “Humanities & Culture”, “Martin Luther King Studies”, and “Public Policy & Social Change”. The only hard-science Ph.D. I can find in their faculty is in Biochemistry, from Michigan Technological University; there’s a fair number of Psychology Ph.D.s of which at least a few seem to be in comparatively “hard” psychology. There aren’t any mathematicians or statisticians that I can detect in their catalog

    Here’s the abstract of Sherman’s dissertation.

    Evolutionary Decision Theory (EDT) is an interdisciplinary topic in which selecting among options—a process fundamental to all living systems—is analyzed through a combination of evolutionary theory and decision theory, providing insights for both descriptive and normative applied decision-making. The overarching research task in EDT is to draw accurate parallels and contrasts between the ways that human and non-human living systems select among options. Non-human living systems include other organisms as well as evolution itself.

    The biological adaptive process of blind variation with selective retention (BVSR) has selectively retained traits that exploit the adaptive process in other arenas such as the immune system and neural networking. Evolutionary epistemology and memetics suggest that the process of BVSR is fundamental to certain key influences upon human decision-making. In the tradition of Donald Campbell and Karl Popper the author hypothesizes that the BVSR process is fundamental to the entire array of forces that drive human decision-making, including those of emotion, cognition and culture.

    To test this hypothesis, the author attempts to sketch a theoretical natural history of decision-making in the lineage that results in modern humans whose decision-making is then depicted as the product of variation with selective retention playing out in multiple arenas concurrently. To suggest the viability of the model, the multiple forces that influence decision-making must all be well represented within the theoretical framework.

    In the tradition of Herbert Simon, the author balances descriptive, explanatory and normative analysis of decision-making. In the tradition of Robert Trivers, the author brings to his analysis a fundamental focus on trade-offs and cost-benefit operating over a variety of dimensions. In the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould, the author writes to convey his ideas for a non-specialist audience, while still meeting a high standard of academic rigor.

    I’m fairly familiar with Donald Campbell’s “evolutionary epistemology”; it is not (at least, as he practiced it: there are tens of thousands of articles in the semi-official bibliographical database of the subject, and I can’t vouch for them!) at all like “evolutionary psychology”, in that it makes no biological claims whatever—rather, it proposes that (1) as a matter of fact, human knowledge-making (in all kinds of contexts, from child development to scientific research projects) often does proceed by “blind variation with selective retention”, and (2) as a matter of practice, professional knowledge-makers (and especially philosophers and scientists who are interesting in epistemology) ought to take the preceding point seriously. I suspect Sherman isn’t as discreet about BVSR as Campbell (and me). His Ph.D. advisor was Robert Atkins, definitely a Social Justice Warrior (and good on him for that!): the bioblurb about him at the 2001 national Conference on Contingent Academic Labor (i.e., adjunct faculty), where he was on a panel about the history of campus organizing, says

    Robert Atkins holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and a J.D. from UC Berkeley. He taught at Antioch College from 1968-1975 and has been with the Union Institute’s Graduate School since 1975. He has practiced law since 1980, representing Federal Employees across the United States in employment discrimination and discipline appeal cases. He has also represented the American Postal Workers in a couple of grievances and has represented three classes in employment discrimination cases against the government. From 1966-68, Atkins was President of Local 1570 of the American Federation of Teachers, representing teaching assistants, research assistants and readers.

    So, definitely a philosopher, not a biologist. Qualified to supervise a thesis with that abstract? Sure. Is the thesis good philosophy? Maybe (the style of the abstract doesn’t thrill me). Is it fair for Sherman to call its subject “decision theory”? Give me an argument why it shouldn’t be. Is it fair for Sherman to call himself a “decision theorist”? Well, as I said, I like the definition I quoted up above. But I don’t think many laypeople reading him have the faintest idea of that definition, or have ever heard the phrase before; so it’s unlikely (I think) that any glory is rubbing off on Sherman that rightly should belong to mathematical/statistical decision theorists. It isn’t like he’s calling himself an evolutionary biologist.

  21. Doc Bill says

    Color me unimpressed. Sherman is cut from the cloth of the “intelligent design” creationists who simply make up terms and claim science deficient.

    With a “diploma” from a degree mill it’s difficult to take Sherman seriously, but a brief read of his schlock puts him in the Deepak Chopra category of nutter.

    Nothing to see here that we haven’t seen before with Behe, Hovind, Hamm and the other grifters.

  22. zetopan says

    Sherman, just like Trump has a insufferably oversized ego and assumes that he it smarter than everyone one else. The both assume that something that they do not know anything about also applies to everyone else on the planet. This is simple an ultimate form of Dunning-Kruger combined with a boisterous ego.

  23. billyjoe says

    I have read the article and watched the three videos linked to in the article, to get a better idea of what Jeremy Sherman is on about.

    First let me get rid of a couple of misconceptions:

    – He is not religious, spiritual, or mystical.
    – He is not sympathetic in any way to creationism.
    – He is speaking from the standpoint of science.
    – He is an atheist as he says, but that is beside the point.
    – He is not like Ham or Hovind or related to the Discovery institute by any stretch of the imagination.
    – His questions are not stupid but his explanations are confusing for the following reaons:
    – Many of his definitions are oddly idiosyncratic: organisms, mind, selves.
    – His “organisms” are simply “living things” distinguished from “inanimate things”.
    – He fails to distinguish “living” organisms from “living, conscious” organisms.
    – He fails to distinguish “conscious” organisms from “self-conscious” organisms.
    – The above definitions and failures allow him to say that bacteria have minds and trees “try”, and that all living things are “selves”.
    – His explanations are hard to follow because of his idiosyncratic definitions.
    – He fails to distinguish teleonomy from teleology.

    So he has big problems that he needs to deal with before he is going to get many positive responses from his peers.

    However, the ideas – only hinted at towards the end of the article when he mentions the research he and others are doing – are not his own ideas, but the ideas of Richard Deacon. The third video explains this hypothesis if anyone is interested. It is his hypothesis as to how life arose from non-life. And it is a scientifically plausible idea. And it is also an interesting idea. But who would have guessed that reading the article? Of course, it is also oversold. It seems you have to oversell your ideas to get any attention.

    This guy needs to do some serious house-cleaning.

  24. John Morales says

    billyjoe:

    First let me get rid of a couple of misconceptions:

    – He is not religious, spiritual, or mystical.
    – He is not sympathetic in any way to creationism.
    – He is speaking from the standpoint of science.
    – He is an atheist as he says, but that is beside the point.
    – He is not like Ham or Hovind or related to the Discovery institute by any stretch of the imagination.
    – His questions are not stupid but his explanations are confusing for the following reaons:
    – Many of his definitions are oddly idiosyncratic: organisms, mind, selves.
    – His “organisms” are simply “living things” distinguished from “inanimate things”.
    – He fails to distinguish “living” organisms from “living, conscious” organisms.
    – He fails to distinguish “conscious” organisms from “self-conscious” organisms.
    – The above definitions and failures allow him to say that bacteria have minds and trees “try”, and that all living things are “selves”.
    – His explanations are hard to follow because of his idiosyncratic definitions.
    – He fails to distinguish teleonomy from teleology.

    FFS. Please preface each claim with “I personally think that [blah]”, since that is precisely what you are expressing.

    You’re welcome to your opinions, but claims aren’t therefore facts, regardless of your phrasing.

    This guy needs to do some serious house-cleaning.

    Yeah, in your opinion. Perhaps in his, he’s profitably employed right now, and would be foolish to follow your advice.

    (Do you imagine anyone reading considers you some sort of expert? heh)

  25. John Morales says

    PPS That said, I did chuckle at this (via leerudolph @24):

    Non-human living systems include other organisms as well as evolution itself.

    Evolution is a life-form, apparently.

    (heh)

  26. bassmanpete says

    A long time ago I read somewhere that there are no stupid questions. However, there are a lot of very inquisitive idiots.

  27. says

    Isn’t this just begging the question? He’s assuming purpose and intent and then asks where it comes from. The answer is simply that his assumptions are wrong.

  28. Ichthyic says

    Give me an argument why it shouldn’t be.

    you gave the damn argument yourself, and you know it.

    you spent a thousand words to effectively agree with exactly what I said in less than 15.

    now go grab a tissue and clean that up.

  29. Ichthyic says

    His questions are not stupid

    they exhibit gross ignorance. if unintended, then laughable, if intended, then stupid.

    end of.

  30. Ichthyic says

    Yeah, in your opinion. Perhaps in his, he’s profitably employed right now, and would be foolish to follow your advice.

    worst quality argument, ever.

    you should be ashamed.

    wait, I’ll be ashamed FOR you.

  31. garnetstar says

    One problem is that chemistry is, for most people, both boring and difficult. Not that many people learn more than an intro course, if that, and the often abysmal quality of teaching in general chem classes doesn’t help.

    Creationists’ efforts have forced many people to learn a few biological concepts, and biology’s a lot more interesting to people, so there’s more knowledge of it in the general population. But, there’s hardly any general comprehension of how chemistry works, how reactions alone can lead to organization and “life”. So people come up against a wall of trying to get their minds around abiogenesis.

    And then, not that many chemists can research origin of life chemistry, so progress in the field seems slow. Proposals that can’t at least pretend to some immediate practical end are less likely to be funded now.

  32. leerudolph says

    Ichthyic@32: “you spent a thousand words to effectively agree with exactly what I said in less than 15.”
    I’m an old-fashioned guy; I like to find evidence for and/or against hypotheses before starting to argue for or against them, and when I’ve put some time into looking for that evidence I like to include (some of) it in my argument.

    What you’ve been writing, repeatedly, in groups of 15 (or somewhat more) words at a time, has been evidence-free. To paraphrase John Morales above, claims aren’t evidence, regardless of their brevity.

  33. billyjoe says

    John Morales,

    FFS. Please preface each claim with “I personally think that [blah]”, since that is precisely what you are expressing.

    Really? Well, please excuse me if I don’t do what no one else here is doing. Including you in your actual response to my comment! I think they call that “kettle black”. Personally, I think it’s fine for everyone to give their opinion without them having to explicitly say so every single time they do.

    You’re welcome to your opinions, but claims aren’t therefore facts, regardless of your phrasing.

    My comment was already long enough. If challenged, I fully intended to back up my opinion of the article and those three videos. Since no one has done so, I will defer for the moment. On the other hand, if you have a contrary opinion, claim, or fact, about the article and the three videos, I would be pleased to hear it.

    Yeah, in your opinion. Perhaps in his, he’s profitably employed right now, and would be foolish to follow your advice.

    Great defence. I hear mercenaries make a great living.
    And you must have missed where I said….sorry, “I personally think that”…the idea is scientifically plausible and interesting.
    I do hope both the author and his mentor continue their work into the mechanism that they hypothesised produced life from non-life regardless of whether of not it is profitable for them to do so. I also I hope he learns to use acceptable definitions of the words he uses in describing what he does for a living. Obviously, I understand what he means, but not everyone is that clever. ;)

    (Do you imagine anyone reading considers you some sort of expert? heh)

    No idea. I hope not. But if only experts were allowed to give an opinion (which is news to me if that is true!), this comment section would be blank. I hesitate to say so, but even your contributions would have to be erased. Imagine that?